Behind the X-Files: The File on Mark Snow

Mark Snow is best known for his X-Files opening whistle and legions of fans know his name through the mysteriously cultish show. But there is no mystery behind Mark’s talent as an accomplished film and television composer and with 1999, Mark proves that the new millennium is full of diverse possibilities. His latest show with Chris Carter (Harsh Realm) debuts in the Fall and his feature Crazy in Alabama marks the directorial debut of Antonio Banderas and a foray into dark comedy. And although Millennium died a slow ratings death last year, Snow’s career has never been more alive. (Editor’s Note: This interview took place in May 1999 before it was announced that Millennium was cancelled.)

How did the compilation The Snow Files come about?

I’d had a few scores put out on CD by Sonic Images, and they thought it would be interesting to show a sort of diverse grouping of other pieces of mine that people don’t necessarily associate with me. The X-Files and that genre has been my most popular thing at the moment, but I’ve been doing this for twenty years so there’s a whole bunch of other music I’ve written as well. There was tons of stuff to listen to, and I just gave it over to them and told them to pick out the stuff and I’d approve it or not. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

It’s a great way for your following to learn more about your work.

Right. Speaking humbly, if I were a Mark Snow fan, I would think it would be interesting to hear his other styles. I know if you’ve seen the CD, it’s definitely an X-File-oriented package, but if that’s what it takes to get them interested…

Were you happy with the X-Files suite produced by John Beal on the CD?

Yes. He really studied the style. At first he was a little timid, and I said, “Hey, I think you’ve got the idea; go with it more, add more of your touch.” He really was very true to it and sensitive and did a great job.

There are some television composers who find it a little more difficult to break into features, even with strong television credits. How has that worked for you?

It’s been very difficult, and no matter how many great TV credits I have, that really doesn’t mean much unless there’s sort of a “cool” factor. X-Files is a very au current, cool show, and that’s helped at least to get people to listen to my stuff and think that could be great. About a month ago, I did a movie Antonio Banderas directed, Crazy in Alabama, where I was submitted, read the script, put some music together that had no X-Files whatsoever. The film is a very sweet, nonviolent movie that takes place in the ’60s. It’s somewhat comic, somewhat poignant, and he just liked the music. X-Files really had no bearing on it whatsoever. He said, “You did the X-Files movie, right? That’s nothing like this movie!” I remember some colleagues of mine started doing TV when I did and weren’t that successful, but they were able to gravitate to B-movies and from there were able to raise their career stakes and have done amazingly well. Sometimes you can fail in TV and really resurrect beautifully in features. Sometimes the reverse is true; you can have a couple of features with nothing and find yourself back in TV. In this day and age, the line between features and TV isn’t what it used to be. There are so many excellent TV shows being made, and TV isn’t the sort of trite thing it was thought of years ago. I know the producer Bob Godwin (X-Files) in Canada, a prolific writer and director, had an interview with Steven Spielberg. Spielberg wanted him to be the producer of a TV series he’s doing, and Bob called me and said the enthusiasm of Spielberg for this series was incredible. He seemed as enthusiastic about it as Saving Private Ryan. So TV is nothing to be ashamed of now. The new Chris Carter show, Harsh Realm, has had an amazing budget. It looks like a movie – great writing, a terrific cast, beautifully directed. It looks very impressive.

So as far as TV versus features, aside from time and budget constraints, are there any differences in the whole process?

Features now are tending to be more like TV just in the way they’re scored, in terms of time constraints. That one thing is so amazing. They’ll finish a movie, temp track it, and test it. If the scores are not so great, they’ll do it again and again. The more they test it, the less time the composer has to write the final score. Oftentimes, people are getting way less than three weeks, somtimes even a week, to do an hour’s-plus work. That’s sort of a new phenomenon. You have to be really agile. Some aspect of your work has to be quick and fast to survive that kind of thing.

How has that changed through the years?

I remember the great story of Stravinsky when he was in Hollywood and was approached to do a film score. He said, “I’d love to,” and they started on the movie. He was all thrilled with it, the money was arranged, and they said, “When will you have this ready for us?” And he said, “Oh, six months from now we’ll have the first half of it.” End of story! You used to have a month or more, so I think that’s changed a lot. In TV, there never was much time, so that hasn’t changed. Producers and directors don’t have that much time to bang on you and really take it apart every which way they can. In features, it’s done over and over, and that can be a real miserable experience. This last experience with Banderas was fantastic because he understands music, and when he didn’t, he’d say, “I don’t understand this; I need your help.”

When is that going to be released?

That was going to be in May, then summer, then September, and now it’s November. They’ve tested this movie, and it tested great, so the studio is really high on it. It’s not a big budget; it’s a very sweet film, and there are some amazing performances. Melanie Griffith and this kid, Lucas Black from Sling Blade, are terrific. I think the only thing about what I do that can get kind of tiring and relentless is that you don’t have much break when the season starts, usually around September through the middle of May. Through the year there are days off, but there’s not weeks or months off. I always say the dream composing job would be to do features where you could pick and choose if you were lucky enough, do a movie, have a month or two off. That’s a pretty cool life, but even some of the big guys like Jerry Goldsmith are so into it they don’t turn down to much. I would love a little more balanced life with a little more free time, but I’m still into it and still can do it, so I’ll go with it for a few more years.

Do you have anything planned for the summer?

There are a few things brewing. I have a place in New Mexico, and I’m looking forward to taking a break there, go and look for UFOs in the desert!

You’re mixing the final episode of Millenium right now; do you think the show will come back?

It’s still possible. The ratings haven’t been good, but the shows have been great if you’re into that kind of dark world.

When did the talk begin about this possibly being the last season for X-Files?

Maybe two years ago when the movie was thought of and they wanted to see if the movie would do well. That would mean possibly another movie, even a third one, but whatever was arranged with the actors, who are beginning to have feature careers, so be it.

Is there a second movie brewing?

There’s talk. I’m hoping that if there is another movie, it’ll be different than the first. I’d hope that it would be smaller and more like the stand alone episodes are instead of having to do the big mythology government coverup. But hey, I just write the songs.

X-Files: Fight the Future is a big album, a big score, and it’s wonderful to hear the sound of the show in a larger manner.

I felt that score had to be somewhat generic of big action movies, which this was, but I was hoping to put as much of my own mark and personality into it. It was the first time the show theme was really used in the underscore – not everywhere, but enough that I’m sure people recognized it. I knew having a new theme it would be musically okay, but I thought it would be a neat way of bringing the TV audience into the movie without overdoing it. It was great fun to have a 90-piece orchestra.

The length of the album was great, too.

There’s a lot of stuff! It was very exciting. Of course, with all the X-Files episodes, there’s always two producers, a writer, a director, sometimes as many as five people who come every week to hear the score in the studio, and they’ve never seen me in action conducting an orchestra. So this was recorded at the Fox scoring stage, which has been renovated, one of the great places in town.

Do you have a team for orchestrating? Do you work with the same people?

There are two main people I use: Jonathan Sacks, a fine orchestrator who’s done many high profile movies, and Lolita Ricmonitz, who’s also brilliant and a terrific composer in her own right. A lot of times I’ll flesh something out on electronics, and it will be pretty complete. I would have time to put pencil to paper a lot of the time, and these people can hear the music and turn it into orchestration with the help of some MIDI score manipulation where the notes appear on score paper in a very simplistic way. This is the way that it’s done mostly. Most of the big composers do it this way, electronically, with the orchestrator working off the tapes and doing the realizations of the score.

20,000 Leagues under the Sea is one of your most beautiful scores; how did that come about?

I knew the producers, so that’s how I got that job. The subject matter felt like the great old-fashioned action movies that Bernard Herrmann scored, like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jason and the Argonauts. That sort of simplistic but big, monolithic type sound, I thought, was really appropriate. I was also influenced by John Barry – this simple, big theme. Between the two, since it had to be a period piece, it felt somewhat like an homage to the great early film scores, and I thought again a simple approach in the melodic writing would be the way to go.

Special Thanks to Ray Costa, Ford A. Thaxton & Sonic Images Records, and to Mark Snow for his generous hospitality.



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